The fastest-accelerating vehicle I’ve been in recently was the Stealth – a roller coaster in the UK’s Thorpe Park theme park. It accelerates from 0 to 80 miles (128 kilometres) per hour in 1.8 seconds: quicker than a Ferrari, a fighter jet, or free fall. Oh, and then shoots up a 62.5-metre-high crest.
All you hear as you fly off the line is the wind rushing past your face (laced, of course, with the sounds of screams). No revving and red-lining engines, clunks of gearshifts, induction roar or blatting exhaust: just the sensation of pure motion.
That, albeit at a much less furious pace, is also the primary sensation I came away with after riding an electric motorcycle last month. And devoid of the Stealth’s stomach-churning, 62.5-metre drop, it’s a whole lot of fun. But surely, you protest, a silent motorcycle is a bit of an oxymoron?
Isn’t the whole point of this type of vehicle to violently combust some fossil fuel and announce to the world via a screaming race-spec exhaust that, yes, you are tearing a hole in the atmosphere, thank you very much? It’s a fair and time-honoured point, but one that’s looking increasingly anachronistic.
Recessions have this unpleasant tendency to kill off such kerfuffle as launching and buying fast, expensive new bikes. Petrol is getting dearer and the globe warmer. And in a world of numerous me-too motorcycles, delivering a unique experience sometimes means starting from a clean sheet of paper. Say, swapping pistons and cranks for magnets and stators.
Electric motorcycles have been experimented with for nearly 150 years. But it’s only in the 21st century that they have entered the realms of practicality, thanks to huge advances in battery technology. While modern electric cars comfortably tuck away their big batteries, and hundreds of thousands of small electric scooters are sold as local runabouts in mobility-hungry countries like China, motorcycles are a different ball game altogether.
Not only do the battery packs need to be compact yet powerful and long lasting, their design and performance needs to appeal to the naked-engine ethics and pampered right wrists of ‘proper’ bikers, who are an especially fussy bunch.
American companies like Zero, Brammo and MotoCzysz, and British firm Saietta, are at the forefront of this push. The first two are rapidly building up a loyal following with stylish and distinctly sporty models like the S, DS and FX, and the Enertia and Empulse respectively.
I spent a week with a 2012 Zero S-ZF9 and came away impressed. Yes, its appearance and component list is rather minimalist: twin spar frame, 17-inch wheels, single front disc, belt drive, minimal bodywork, flat bars and a boxy black battery pack occupying centre stage. But the S and company are the exciting delivery of a concept that, even a decade ago, sounded like an eco-weenie fantasy or the stuff of sci-fi.
No noise, no fumes (or at least safely distanced to the other end of the country’s power grid), no fuel. Plug it into a standard wall socket, leave it for a few hours and off you go (remembering to unplug the cable of course).
With the nine-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion cell battery and brushless electric motor combining to produce the equivalent of 26bhp, it’s only as powerful as a modern 250cc combustion engine bike. But it’s the torque that’s the real surprise. As electric motors don’t need to rev into a sweet spot like piston engines do, they can whack out near-instant torque.
The S’s acceleration is deliberately reined in up to around 50 kilometres per hour, so you don’t get yourself in trouble in city traffic – but then the taps open. The bike’s torque wave sneaks up on you silently, gushing forth with the linearity of a torpedo, taking you very quickly past 50, 80, 100, up to a top speed of 142 kilometres per hour; I dare say that little burst would surprise even a 600-class sportsbike rider. It was certainly enough to swat aside cars in urban traffic and even on more open roads.
The ‘whoosh-twist-whoosh’ got addictive, with the lack of accompanying mechanical noise slowly turning into a zen-like positive, allowing a clearer focus on the ride. However, enjoyable as it might be to ride, there are downsides to the S, and to most electric bikes.
Anyone who has raged and panicked at the woeful bleep of a dying iPhone will know the feeling when you rack up 70 or 80 kilometres at a good clip and then notice your battery level indicator is flashing ominously. A dead motor equals a dead bike, and unless you live and ride only well within range of known power access points, that’s not much good.
The other big downer is the purchase price. Top-of-the-range Brammos, Zeros and Saiettas cost more than a top-end 1,000cc Japanese superbike making more than 185bhp. Technology follows a downward price curve, so that’s bound to change, but for now, even die-hard early adopters would be forgiven for blanching a little.
But things are changing, and fast. Zero’s 2013 model of the S has the improved ZF11.4 powerpack, which doubles power output to 54bhp and boosts the bike’s range to 220 kilometres, all with that silent torque punch ever at the ready. At this rate, road-going electric motorcycles will be as powerful as their petrol counterparts in just a few years.
Already the premier race for electric bikes – the TT Zero, begun in 2010 – sees average lap speeds in excess of 160 kilometres per hour. The happy confluence of performance and practicality is imminent, and when the likes of Honda, Yamaha, BMW or KTM jump in, the fun will really begin.
In the meantime, do yourself a favour and test-ride an electric bike, even if with no greater intention than getting your head around the concept. Chances are you’ll find yourself sporting a silly grin and your throttle hand may just suddenly start waving a cheque book about.